CityViews: We Have to Talk About Gentrification in Long Island City

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Haruka Sakaguchi

A scene from the Queens Anti-Gentrification Project’s recent Long Island City walking tour.

 

A response to this op-ed is appended below

Over the past decade, Long Island City has experienced drastic transformation, sprouting up residential towers that rival Manhattan, and becoming the fastest growing neighborhood in the country. Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer bragged that he feels “envy” from other Council Members over the development boom.

They see it from Manhattan, or they drive through it, or they come to an event here, and they say that’s incredible what’s happening there: All those buildings going up, all those cultural institutions, that waterfront park, yes, that 30 million dollar Steven Holl library that is now rising on the waterfront – these are incredible victories that signal an amazing future for this place,” he said at a 2015 real estate conference.

But what exactly does this “amazing” future look like? And who is driving the process?

Earlier this month, the Queens Anti-Gentrification Project led a Long Island City walking tour with about 60 neighbors to explore these questions, starting at the legendary 5 Pointz site, the former graffiti mecca which is now being turned into luxury rentals.

We visited a diner that was a fixture in the community since the 1940s and now sits vacant. The last tenant and their 20 employees were pushed out when the landlord raised the rent “astronomically high” and refused to negotiate a fair price.

We crossed one of the few remaining low-rise communities where immigrant Italian and Irish neighbors once shared block parties and looked out for one another. An elderly resident who had been in the neighborhood for over 50 years believes those days are over. Now, people come, and when they can’t afford the rent anymore, they go. No one gets to know each other.

On the ashes of these destroyed communities, developers have moved in to erect what amount to luxury gated communities — high rise mega-towers that are often promoted like all-inclusive cruises. Take the Hayden by Rockrose for example. With rents starting at $2,655 for a studio, tenants have access to a dog-grooming station, yoga studio, private rooftop park, library, and even a basketball court — all within their buildings and programmed by professional event planners.

From Tishman Speyer to smaller LIC-based firm Criterion Group, developers are replicating this elevator community model across LIC so that residents never have to leave their buildings because everything they need is one elevator ride away. As one developer boasted, these apartments have “everything but a ski resort”.

It is tempting to see these behemoths as purely inevitable responses to market demands, driven by techies and trust-fund babies on the hunt for the next, best luxury crib. But the free market explanation alone masks an ugly truth: The death of culture, small business, and community, and displacement of working class people—none of this would be possible without significant help from government.

We explored three examples during our walking tour:

Rezonings: As City Limits has previously reported, the 2001 Long Island City rezoning from manufacturing to mixed use, which occurred when Walter McCaffrey was the local Councilmember, resulted in landlords pushing out industrial tenants to take advantage of higher profits from residential and commercial development. Department of City Planning at the time erroneously predicted that only 400 units of housing would be built, but in fact, about 13,000 have been built or are under construction (and over 95% are market rate, luxury housing). There have also been numerous “spot upzonings”—including the infamous upzoning of the Five Pointz site.

Tax Breaks for Developers: We explored several of LIC’s many luxury towers that pay no taxes, thanks to one of REBNY’s favorite state programs, 421-a. Developers receive tax exemptions for at least 10 years in exchange for setting aside only 20% of their units as temporary, so-called “affordable housing”. This program significantly enriches luxury developers like Rockrose, at a cost of $1.4 billion in foregone taxes annually (Note: This program has since been reincarnated as “Affordable Housing New York” and now provides 35-year tax breaks).

Privatization of public land: Just this year, the city announced its decision to give away one of the largest parcels of publicly-owned land in Long Island City to a private developer, TF Cornerstone, for the construction of nearly 1,000 units of mostly luxury housing, prompting the LIC Coalition to issue a petition. The city also released a feasibility study revealing plans to develop a new, mostly market rate neighborhood over the publicly-owned Sunnyside Yards which borders the LIC core.

These government actions illustrate that gentrification is not an inevitable phenomenon; rather, as Peter Moskowitz explains in, How to Kill a City, gentrification is the process of “reorienting the purpose of cities away from being spaces that provide for poor and middle classes and toward spaces that generate capital for the rich.”

Van Bramer, who has received more than $100,000 from sources connected to real estate, has stated “wherever Long Island City goes, New York will follow.” Is this the direction that we wish to follow—to be forced out or surrounded by vertical gated communities where only the rich and most fortunate have access? If real estate has its way, and the city is allowed to pass the Triple-Threat proposal—Long Island City Core Rezoning, BQX, and the development of Sunnyside Yards—all of the diverse working class communities along the 7 train will experience massive displacement. We must stop it.

Learn more and see photos from the Queens Anti-Gentrification Project’s Long Island City walking tour and other initiatives by visiting our website or Facebook page.

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Response on Behalf of Councilmember Van Bramer

There’s a lot of new construction going on all along the 7 line – from Flushing to LIC. We’ve got a lot of new neighbors, with a LOT more on the way, here in Western Queens. This sudden population explosion has brought us a lot of new problems with them, especially in LIC. A sparsely populated industrial zone has become a residential hub with thousands and thousands of new apartments, following the 2001 rezoning, which has brought a looming infrastructure crisis along with it. We need school desks, better transit, hospital beds, more NYPD & FDNY, better sewerage… the list goes on and on, and it’s all terribly expensive. Council Member Van Bramer has stood up for us time and again calling on the City to address these issues.

This infrastructure issue has caused all sorts of community activism to spring up here in the 26th Council District in recent years. When the community gathered together under the 7 train tracks to protest about declining service, Jimmy Van Bramer wasn’t just there, he organized the event and brought the media with him to hear us. When Mayor de Blasio announced his plan to deck over the Sunnyside Yards, CM Van Bramer listened to his constituency’s collective gasp of horror and stood with the community in opposition to the project. He stood with us when Phipps proposed an out of scale development plan over in Sunnyside. Jimmy Van Bramer is a representative who listens to, and implements, his community’s wishes.

We need more young people in this country to get involved with the communities where they live, and participate in the process. I just don’t understand why Jimmy Van Bramer has been painted the villain of the story. Whenever there has been an issue in the community, development related or otherwise, Jimmy has – and continues to- stand up for us.

Mitch Waxman
Constituent and community activist
Astoria, Queens

7 thoughts on “CityViews: We Have to Talk About Gentrification in Long Island City

  1. Too bad no one in the deBlasio administration is worried about what all these new high-rise apartment buildings will do to western Queens aging transit & water/sewer infrastructure.

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  3. Response to Mitch Waxman:

    Queens Anti-Gentrification Project is well aware of the infrastructure issues plaguing our neighborhoods. We are concerned with infrastructure. However, the op-ed we wrote for City Limits does not mention infrastructure. What the op-ed deals with, very specifically, is the financial influence of the real estate industry on city politics, income inequality, and most importantly – the displacement of human beings from their homes and livelihoods.

    Why, then, is Mitch Waxman’s response attempting to reframe the discussion in terms of infrastructure? Why does the response ignore our main points and accuse us of “painting” Jimmy Van Bramer as a villain? We quoted Van Bramer verbatim from a real estate conference appearance, and we invite all readers to watch the video themselves. We aren’t “painting” anything. We’re merely stating facts:

    Van Bramer took over $100k in campaign donations from real estate, he frequently speaks at real estate conferences, he has consistently spoken publicly in favor of luxury development in his district, and he refuses to take concrete action to prevent mass displacement. None of these facts are being contested, so if these are the attributes of a villain, then perhaps Mitch Waxman is asking the wrong question.

    As for the mentality that more luxury development is inevitable – the result of a “population explosion” – this is precisely the type of myth we were trying to debunk in the first place. It is not inevitable, it’s a result of city policy and planning, and we will do everything we can to stop it.

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